With a public beta release of Office 2010 available, virtually anyone can get a look at a near-feature-complete version of Microsoft's next office productivity suite. Here's what you need to know about the Office 2010 public beta.

A Family of Products
Microsoft is really driving home the notion of integration across all of the products and services that make up the Office family of solutions. Yes, there is the traditional, PC-based productivity suite, of course, and standalone applications like Project and Visio, and these applications soldier on in Office 2010 with mostly evolutionary changes.

But server products such as Exchange 2010, Exchange Online, SharePoint 2010, and SharePoint Online (and, of course, Office Communications Server) get major updates, with sweeping new areas of functionality. In the beta time frame, each of these products is available in near feature-complete versions (or, in the case of Exchange, final versions). Office 2010 also includes the first generation of Microsoft Office Web Applications, such as Word Web App, Excel Web App, PowerPoint Web App, and OneNote Web App, and a new generation of Microsoft Office Mobile for Windows Mobile. They’re not available in updated form for the beta, though Microsoft promises a prerelease look in the coming months. (Microsoft is also working on the first version of Office Mobile for Nokia Symbian.)

Big Themes
In Office 2010, Microsoft is focusing on the fundamentals—copy and paste, email, and superior document fidelity and application integration—as well as what it calls tomorrow's expectations, those things that are forward-leaning today but could become core expectations for the future. These include the ability to work with high-definition imagery and video, real-time collaboration, and the ability to work anywhere, on any device.

Previous versions of Office integrated the new ribbon UI into several key Office applications. Now it will be available in all Office applications and even on the server; you'll see the ribbon UI in SharePoint 2010, for example. While some say they don't like the ribbon, Microsoft's metrics tell a different story of huge productivity gains for users. Over 12,000 third-party developers have signed on to add this UI to their own applications as a result.

But Office 2010 isn't just about the ribbon. Across various applications, you'll see such changes as a new BackStage environment that replaces the old File menu with a new full-screen interface for accessing all of the options related to the application and the current document. Many Office applications have gotten new image editing tools, and PowerPoint 2010 even provides surprisingly powerful video editing functionality. New OpenType typography (Word, Publisher) provides for much more advanced control over type. And all Office 2010 apps pick up Paste Preview, which seeks to help those who use the number two most-often-used Office command of all: Undo.

Also, in a first, Office 2010 will come with both 32-bit and 64-bit installers. The 64-bit versions of Office can take advantage of massive amounts of RAM, something that should be of particular interest to Excel gurus. Excel can now handle spreadsheets with over 2GB of data.

Oulook's Update
In Office 2010, Outlook receives its biggest update in years. Although this is the one application in which the ribbon UI looks somewhat out of place, Outlook 2010 has enough new functionality to keep those of us who live in this application every day quite happy indeed. A new Conversation View automatically organizes email messages by discussion. Excellent new tools like Ignore Conversation and Clean Up take the pain out of productivity-killing email threads, and Calendar Preview lets you view meeting participants' schedules in an inline mini-view so you can determine the best time for a scheduled meeting before you send the request off to everyone.

Another new Outlook 2010 feature, Quick Steps, provides a palette of customizable multi-step tasks. With just one click you can do such things as mark an email message as read and then archive it in a specific location. It's a huge time saver. And Outlook 2010 also supports the use of multiple Exchange accounts simultaneously.

Office 2010 on the Server
Some of the biggest gains in Office 2010 come from the server side. Exchange 2010 provides access to some of Outlook's best features—including MailTips, a feature aimed at preventing users from sending sensitive corporate data outside the company—as well as new features around Anywhere Access, unified messaging, email archiving, protection, compliance and more.

New to the public beta is a first peek at SharePoint 2010, which integrates more tightly into the individual Office 2010 applications and provides a new end-user solution, SharePoint Workspace 2010 (formerly Groove). Workspace can be used in tandem with SharePoint-based sites but can also be used to create ad hoc "server-less" SharePoint sites that let users collaborate over peer-to-peer connections. In the server itself, you'll see new developer extensibility capabilities, enhanced Internet site creation functionality (and new product versions aimed at those who wish to use SharePoint for public Internet sites), rich media support, and more.

Recommendations
While Office 2007 was a revolutionary release, Office 2010 feels evolutionary to me, with the exception of Outlook and SharePoint. But we won't have a full picture until updated prerelease versions of Outlook Web Applications and Mobile Office are made available.

For now, however, the public beta is an excellent chance to evaluate Microsoft's next-generation productivity solutions. If you're still using Office 2003 or earlier, you should look seriously at Office 2010. But even those on Office 2007 will find something to like.